Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Nonviolence beyond the symbolism of the pure leader

On August 27, the American media organization PBS aired on television an excellent documentary The March, which details "the compelling and dramatic story of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his stirring 'I Have a Dream' speech". The full documentary can be viewed for free on the PBS website (I hope that is true for those outside of North America too).

I was moved to see Jawaharlal Nehru appear briefly in the documentary. He was not mentioned by name in the narrative, but I felt he symbolically represented so many things: the fact that mass nonviolence first emerged not among the global core but among the periphery; that he was bearing witness to these political struggles on behalf of hundreds of millions of brown people who had been colonized for centuries; that like Pres. Kennedy, he was born into immense wealth and privilege, while the people who needed equal rights and freedom the most were the very poor, the hungry, and the physically violated;  and that he, Pres. Kennedy, King and Bayard Rustin were men whose lives public and private cannot be understood as somehow separate from their sexual lives. I cannot help but think of an Indian friend who proudly told me of Nehru's alleged affair with Edwina Mountbatten. Perhaps in my friend's mind at that moment Mountbatten, herself symbolic of the elite white woman's power, was reduced into a mere object of the brown man's sexual conquest.

I mention this because although all these men are symbols of various kinds, and rightly so, they like Gandhi and so many other leaders were complex, multidimensional people, as are we. Among the great nonviolent leaders, we almost always see not preordained purity but spiritual struggle, all-too-real failings and the attempt to harness powerful human drives for good. We cannot understand their lives and how they are understood by their admirers and detractors without understanding this complexity and how they dealt with it. There is the integrity and dignity of nonviolence that most of us aspire so fervently for, and there is the reality of our lives, which are typically colored by countless struggles personal and public. We cannot conceptualize one without the other. While I often reflect on how miraculous a life like that of Abdul Ghaffar Khan was, at this moment I am moved to reflect that it is a miracle that nonviolence is more often practiced by all-too-real people whose lives are our lives too, no matter their station in life.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Parisian storm

Under brooding clouds one day in June 2007, a friend and I visited the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre in Paris, perched on a small hill overlooking numerous tourist shops, hawkers, musicians, hotdogs for homesick Americans, and couples kissing each other. It is a visually stunning church that is utterly different to the Notre Dame de Paris. Dignified and quiet, nuns and priests gather for wide-ranging reflection on God and the divine life. Such solemnity precludes practically everything one may want to do in a sacred space: talk, take a photograph, drink a drink, and eat a hamburger. This, at least, is what the signs at the entrance explicitly banned. There were two big African guys enforcing the regulations. They kicked out a couple of fat drunken pink-faced tourists in pastel shirts who made a mockery of the rules by taking a photo. Within moments of their small camera's flash lighting up the cavernous interior, the two enforcers descended on them and firmly escorted them to the exit.
While we were outside the Sacré-Coeur, it began to rain. Along with many others, we took cover under the entrance way at the top of the steps of the great Church. It began to rain harder, so we all moved inside the entrance way a little more. Then the wind picked up. We moved inside a little more. Then both the rain and the wind intensified. We soon realised we were in a storm. Hiding behind even one of the immense stone pillars was useless in the face of such a deluge, and as the water descended upon us, screams of laughter and fear emanated from young American and Spanish girls as the wind enthusiastically whipped the heavy drops of rain into practically every nook and cranny of the entrance way. We tried to go inside the Church but the doors were sealed shut. People cried out for the doors to open, and they opened. We all piled in, wet, cold, and with smiles of relief and joy on our faces.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tajikistan slideshow refresh

I have re-released my Tajikistan slideshow. Much like my Iran slideshow, I redid the post-processing of the photos. The music company who publishes the accompanying song, Blue Flame Publishing / Global Flame Publishing, were generous and let me use their song without payment, which I very much appreciate.

Pamiri woman - Namadgut

Friday, June 07, 2013

Iran slideshow refresh

In 2007 I published a slideshow of photos of my first trip to Iran. The slideshow was accompanied by one of Alireza Eftekhari's lovely songs. Little did I know then that it would rack up more than 100,000 page views. I received a lot of feedback from Iranians. It remains my most popular published work of any kind.

My skills in post-processing photos have improved substantially in the six years since. The software and hardware tools I use have also improved. This year I decided to redo every single photo. It was a lot of work but I think it's worth it. The color and contrast are both improved, looking more realistic. While I was at it, I swapped out a couple of weak images for better ones. Here are some before and after shots to give you an idea (old versions first):





Let me know what you think!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Arrogant philosophy is foolish philosophy

Justin E. H. Smith yesterday advanced a thoroughly interesting argument about what he calls philosophy’s western bias. I agree with an alternative approach to the history of philosophy he briefly outlines, where Western and non-Western philosophies are "the regional inflections of a global phenomenon".

Smith draws upon G. W. Leibniz to argue philosophical dominance piggy-backs commercial dominance. Let me make a related point: it's not difficult to find practical examples of the link between commercial innovation and philosophical thought. For instance the idea of time the Buddha proposed when developed the idea of "dependent arising" is absolutely fascinating, partly because it is so different from the concept of past, present and future we all take for granted. The Buddha's 2,500 year old idea about time and reality is very much relevant today because the developers of contemporary video compression codecs utilize techniques like interframe compression that have far more in common with dependent arising than they do with discrete moments of time.

Statue of the Buddha in Tajikistan
Statue of the Buddha in Tajikistan

Because Western philosophers care so little for South Asian philosophical concepts, unsurprisingly I had to learn about the Buddha's concept of dependent arising from a Sri Lankan philosopher, David Kalupahana.

When Western philosopher ignore or marginalize other philosophical traditions through the mechanisms Smith outlines, it is to our intellectual, cultural and yes commercial impoverishment.

Arrogant philosophy is foolish philosophy.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rabbi Froman's daughter's wedding

In the second half of 2005 I was doing an internship in Jerusalem as part of my MA in Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. It was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend the Kroc program to prospective students. In November of that year I was most fortunate to be invited by Eliyahu McLean to a wedding being held in an Israeli settlement deep in the West Bank in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. One of Rabbi Froman's ten children was being married — one of his daughters.

The bride dances
The bride dances

The wedding turned out to be a magical evening, and not only because it was my first time to attend a Jewish wedding. It was an evening to never forget because the Palestinian religious peacemaker Hajj Ibrahim also came to the wedding — he was delayed and arrived late, but made a grand entrance. Luckily I was able to document some of the evening's events with my camera.

Hajj Ibrahim dances with Rabbi Froman
Hajj Ibrahim dances with Rabbi Froman

Earlier that year I'd started to learn the craft of photography. There was a lot to learn! Some aspects have taken me several years to master. I've also had access to better equipment and software than when I started. In the past several weeks I've reprocessed the photos I originally took, improving their look. The first thing to get right was the white balance, and then the color and noise control. The conditions were difficult photographically — like almost all wedding halls, it was dimly lit. I made the choice to make the photos bright and colorful, reflecting how the event felt emotionally.

You can see the photos and the original writeup I penned at the time at a gallery on PBase.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Brief review of the film "A Separation"

A Separation (Persian: Jodaeiye Nader az Simin), directed and written by Asghar Farhadi (2011).

The acting is remarkable and the development of the story is top-notch. But this is not what made me fall for this film. More than any film I can recall, it prompted me to reflect on the ups and downs of life-changing relationships — mine and others. We all make mistakes, and in this film we are brought empathetically but forcefully into a tumultuous period of the characters' lives in which they can't help but make their fair share. In this sense the film is more true-to-life than any other I've seen. We see the characters' decisions and actions, and sometimes it's far from clear whether they derive from a motivation to do what they truly aspire to, or if they are just trying to survive under difficult circumstances. We cannot help but watch compassionately, especially because the film wisely and resolutely refuses to allow us to be swept along by stereotypes, sentimentality or rigid distinctions between good and bad. Instead we come to understand the characters even though we don't understand all that they do. Some of my friends say the film is sad or even depressing, but I disagree. I find it uplifting — I am encouraged by the character's struggle for dignity, and humbled by the double-edged nature of their pride. This is film-making and story-telling of the highest standard.

Tehran street scene (this is not from the film)
Tehran street scene (this is not from the film)